Israel Demanding Right to Buy Greek Orthodox Church Property

Source: Israel presses church in seeking to keep Jaffa Gate hotels in hands of Israeli lessees.

Meron Rapoport
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Meron Rapoport

Israel is demanding that the Greek Orthodox patriarchy conduct a census of all church property in Israel and the Palestinian territories ahead of its sale or long-term lease, and to give Israel the first right of refusal on the property.

Israel is also asking that the property purchased by Jewish organizations in the area of Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate will "remain in the hands of the Israeli lessees," according to a document obtained by Haaretz.

The document bears the signature of attorney Renato Yarak, a former senior State Prosecution official. Yarak, the former head of High Court petitions in the State Prosecutor's Office, and another attorney, Rami Mugrabi, said cabinet minister Rafi Eitan gave them the document on January 18.

Eitan is a member of the ministerial committee dealing with matters pertaining to the patriarchy.

The two attorney's represent Theophilos, who was elected patriarch by the Greek Orthodox Synod about a year and a half ago, and who has since then been working to obtain Israel's recognition as patriarch.

Sources close to Theophilos said his attorneys were told that the acceptance of the clauses in the document were a condition to Israel's recognizing him as patriarch. Theophilos' attorneys rejected the conditions as an "illegal and extraneous" intervention in church matters.

The most problematic clause is the one dealing with properties at the Jaffa Gate. It states that the patriarch and the author of the document must arrive at a process by which "the hotel" at the Jaffa Gate will remain in the hands of its Israeli lessees.

The property, consisting of three hotels, was sold to a company in the Virgin Islands, with members of the Ateret Kohanim association, which settles Jews in the Old City, acting as intermediaries.

However, the legality of the deal has been challenged in courts. Patriarch Irineos, who was dismissed from his post by the Greek Orthodox Synod after the sale of the hotels to Jews came to light, claimed that he and the Synod had not approved the power of attorney as required by law. The demand by attorney Micha Kirsch, representing Irineos, that the deals be canceled, is now before the District Court in Jerusalem.

Irineos also said his dismissal by the Synod is illegal and that he wants the government to continue recognizing him as patriarch.

The ministerial committee of which Eitan is a member is to inform the High Court of Justice of the government's stand on the matter.

The document delivered by Eitan to Theophilos' attorneys shows that a central issue occupying the committee is how to ensure that Greek Orthodox church assets will be sold to Jewish bodies or to the state.

Eitan refused to comment, saying that the matter was currently before the court.

The Greek Orthodox church owns tens of thousands of dunams of land in the Galilee, central Israel and Jerusalem.

A senior legal official said that if the cabinet would indeed condition its agreement to recognize Theophilos on a doubtful legal deal now before the courts, such a condition was "ugly" and did "not look good."

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